Bath council sets deadline for disposition of unsafe house
BATH — The City Council on Wednesday gave the elderly residents of an unsafe house four months to decide if they will repair or demolish the building.
If demolition is the choice, that must occur within 11 months, the council said.
Meanwhile, the residents of the home – Alan and Yvonne Orchard of 45 Windjammer Way – don't believe repair is an option. They are hoping to move into a partially subsidized apartment near Bluff Road, which will not be available until next month.
The council ruled 7-1 on Dec. 5, with Councilor David Sinclair opposed, that the dilapidated 1920 building is a danger to the Orchards.
Code Enforcement Officer Scott Davis deemed the house dangerous after he inspected it with a structural engineer in September. His report said the house's foundation footing had settled; its rear joints rested on wet soil; "variable settlement" had caused some parts of the floor sheathing to be unsupported, and a main support beam supporting the joists at the center of the house had failed.
A blue tarp covered a large hole in the roof, and roof framing surrounding that tarp had failed, "with missing sheathing, failed sheathing bowed between remaining rafters, and rotted rafters with parts of the rafter missing," Davis reported, adding that he also found the house to be out of plumb.
On Wednesday, the council voted 7-1, with Sinclair again opposed, to give the Orchards until May 1, 2013, to decide whether to repair the dilapidated building. Should the couple choose to tear down the house, they have until Nov. 1, 2013, to do so, according to the order.
Debris would have to be completely removed from the property and disposed of within a week after demolition, and the property would have to be "remediated and returned to its natural state" within three weeks.
The council also ordered the Orchards to secure the building, with entry barred except for repairs, demolition, or removal of the couple's personal property.
City Manager Bill Giroux said after the meeting that it is up to Davis to enforce the order.
"If they refuse to vacate, then a judge would have them vacate," he said. "... They have to be given reasonable time to move their belongings ... but obviously it has to happen fairly soon, because the council has said that the building is ... dangerous."
Giroux added that "all the city officials involved are doing everything they can to assist them in every way possible."
Yvonne Orchard said after the meeting that the city had offered a temporary place to stay in Brunswick until the Bluff Road apartment is ready, "but we didn't really want to take it because we were worried about the pipes (freezing at Windjammer Way)."
Jeanelle Merrill-Pyy, who called herself an advocate and personal assistant for the Orchards, argued that a communication barrier existed between the couple and the city.
"There's a difference in the way that you communicate (as councilors), to the way that they communicate," she said, noting that while both parties speak the same language, "what you say goes above their head. And it triggers a fear response, and that fear response, inside an individual, can be paralyzing, and cause them to not be able to process what it is that is happening in a way that they can fully respond in an appropriate manner to the situation at hand."
Merrill-Pyy said Alan Orchard, an 81-year-old former carpenter, "never needed social assistance before. His pride is on the line."
At that point, the Orchards had already left the meeting. Later Wednesday evening at home, Alan Orchard expressed frustration about the proceedings, saying he did not think he was going to be able to say anything there.
"It's all between them up there," he said, referring to the council.
Orchard has acknowledged that the house is in bad shape, and said he and his wife have tried to find another place, but money is their problem. He has said he knows the structure of the house and is not worried about its integrity, and that the building had leaned long before they moved in 26 years ago.
But on Wednesday he said he now considers the house beyond repair.
Yvonne Orchard, 55, has said she and her husband approached the Bath Housing Authority for help, but they were told there is a two-year waiting list for Section 8 housing – government assistance to low-income renters – and a six- to 12-month wait for elderly disabled people.
Councilor Meadow Rue Merrill said she hopes for an extension of the deadlines if needed, and suggested reaching out to volunteer organizations to help the Orchards.
"I would hope that as hard as this decision is, we can work together in a way that is to the greatest benefit for the Orchards," she said.
City Solicitor Roger Therriault called the Orchards "wonderful people," adding that "no one wants this to happen."
"This is not fun for anybody," Therriault said, noting that when the situation started to become desperate, and the condition of the building reached the point it needed to be condemned, "we asked ourselves a question ... 'which would you rather see on the front page of the paper? Would you rather see a headline that said that this building collapses on these two poor innocent people because the city stood by and didn't do anything? Or would you rather try to go through a process that would at least protect their safety?'"